“The White Guard”, Chapter II – Weekly Reads
The events of the novel “White Guard” begin to gain momentum. The authority of hetman Skoropadskyof in Kiev supported by the Germans has diminished. The troops of the socialist Petlyura are heading to the city. Similar to the Bolsheviks, he is a robber, and differs from them only by his Ukrainian nationalism. Meanwhile, the family of Turbins are gathering in the living room and listening to cannon shots approaching Kiev. Very soon the life of this family will change greatly.
Please, find the details in Chapter II below! Enjoy the read!
White with hoar-frost, December sped towards its end. The glitter of Christmas could already be felt in the snowbound streets. The year 1918 would soon be over.
Number 13 was a curious building. On the street the Turbins’ apartment was on the second floor, but so steep was the hill behind the house that their back door opened directly on to the sloping yard, where the house was brushed and overhung by the branches of the trees growing in the little garden that clung to the hillside. The back-gardens filled up with snow, and the hill turned white until it became one gigantic sugar-loaf. The house acquired a covering like a White general’s winter fur cap; on the lower floor (on the street side it was the first floor, whilst at the back, under the Turbins’ verandah, it was the basement) the disagreeable Vasily Lisovich-an engineer, a coward and a bourgeois – lit his flickering little yellow lamps, whilst upstairs the Turbins’ windows shone brightly and cheerfully.
One evening Alexei and Nikolka went out into the yard for some firewood.
‘Hm, damn little firewood left. Look, they’ve been pinching it again.’
A cone of bluish light burst out from Nikolka’s pocket flashlight, and they could see clearly where the planking of the woodshed had been wrenched away and clumsily pushed back into place from the outside.
‘I’d shoot the swine if I caught them, by God I would. Why don’t we keep watch out here tonight? I know it’s that shoemaker’s family from Number 11. And they’ve got much more firewood than we have, damn them!’
‘Oh, to hell with them… Come on, let’s go.’
The rusty lock creaked, a pile of logs tumbled down towards the two brothers and they lugged them away. By nine that evening the tiles of Saardam were too hot to touch.
The gleaming surface of that remarkable stove bore a number of historic inscriptions and drawings, painted on at various times during the past year by Nikolka and full of the deepest significance:
If people tell you the Allies are coming to help us out of this mess, don’t believe them. The Allies are swine.
He’s a pro-Bolshevik!
A drawing of a head of Momus, written underneath it: Trooper Leonid Yurievich.
News is bad and rumours humming – People say the Reds are coming! A painting of a face with long drooping moustaches, a fur hat with a blue tassel. Underneath:
Down with Petlyura!
Written by Elena and the Turbins’ beloved childhood friends – Myshlaevsky, Karas and Shervinsky – in paint, ink and cherry-juice were the following gems:
Elena loves us all,
the thin, the fat and the tall.
Lena dear, have booked tickets for Aida Box No. 8, right. On the twelfth day of May 1918 I fell in love.
You are fat and ugly.
After a remark like that I shall shoot myself.
(followed by an extremely realistic drawing of an automatic) Long live Russia!
Long live the Monarchy! June. Barcarolle.
All Russia will recall the day of glorious Borodino. Then printed in capitals, in Nikolka’s hand:
1 hereby forbid the scribbling of nonsense on this stove. Any comrade found guilty of doing so will be shot and deprived of civil rights, signed: Abraham Goldblatt,
Ladies, Gentlemen’s and Women’s Tailor. Commissar, Podol District Committee.
30th January 1918.
The patterned tiles were luxuriously hot, the black clock going tonk- tank, tonk-tank, as it had done for thirty years. The elder Turbin, clean-shaven and fair-haired, grown older and more sombre since October 25th 1917, wearing an army officer’s tunic with huge bellows pockets, blue breeches and soft new slippers, in his favourite attitude – in an upright armchair. At his feet on a stool Nikolka with his forelock, his legs stretched out almost as far as the sideboard – the dining-room was not big – and shod in his buckled boots. Gently and softly Nikolka strummed at his beloved guitar, vaguely… everything was still so confused. The City was full of unease, of vague foreboding…
On his shoulders Nikolka wore sergeant’s shoulder-straps to which were sewn the white stripes of an officer cadet, and on his left sleeve a sharp- pointed tricolor chevron. (Infantry, No. 1
Detachment, 3rd Squad. Formed four days ago in view of impending events.)
Yet despite these events, all was well inside the Turbins’ home:
it was warm and comfortable and the cream-colored blinds were drawn
– so warm that the two brothers felt pleasantly languorous.
The elder dropped his book and stretched.
‘Come on, play “The Survey Squad”.’ Thrum-ta-ta-tum, thrum-ta-ta-tum…
‘Who look the smartest? Who move the fastest? The Cadets of the Engineers!’
Alexei began to hum the tune. His eyes were grim, but there was a sparkle in them and his blood quickened. But not too loud, gentlemen, not too loud…
‘No need to run, girls, Life can be fun, girls -‘
The guitar strummed away in time to the marching feet of an engineer company – left, right, left, right! In his mind’s eye Nikolka saw a school building, peeling classical columns, guns. Cadets crawling from window to window, firing. Machine-guns at the windows. A handful of soldiers was besieging the school, literally a handful. But it was no use. General Bogoroditzky had turned yellow and surrendered, surrendered with all his cadets. The shame of it…
‘No need to run, girls, Life can be fun, girls -The Survey Squad is here!’
Nikolka’s eyes clouded again. Heat-haze over the red-brown Ukrainian fields. Companies of cadets, white with powdery dust, marching along the dusty tracks. All over now. The shame . . . Hell.
Elena pushed aside the drapes over the door, and her auburn head appeared in the dark gap. She glanced affectionately at her brothers but anxiously at the clock. With good reason; where on earth was Talberg? Their sister was worried. To hide it, she started to sing the tune with her brothers, but suddenly stopped and raised her finger.
‘Wait. Did you hear that?’
On all seven strings the company came to a halt. All three listened.
There was no mistaking the sound: gunfire. Low, muffled and distant. There it was again: boo-oo-om… Nikolka put down his guitar and jumped up, followed, groaning, by Alexei.
In the lobby and drawing-room it was quite dark. Nikolka stumbled over a chair. Outside it was exactly like a stage-setting for The Night Before Christmas – snow and twinkling, shimmering lights. Nikolka peered through the window. Heat-haze and school house vanished as he strained his ears. Where was that sound? He shrugged his tabbed shoulders.
‘God knows. I get the impression it’s coming from the Svyato-shino direction. Funny, though. It can’t be as near as that.’
Alexei was standing in the dark, but Elena was nearer to the window and her eyes were shadowed with fear. Why had Talberg still not come home? What did it mean? The elder brother sensed her anxiety and because of it he said nothing, although he very much wanted to speak his thoughts. There was not the slightest doubt that it was coming from Svyatoshino. The firing was no more than eight miles outside the City. What was going on?
Nikolka gripped the window-catch and pressed his other hand against the pane as if to break it open, and flattened his nose against the glass.
Td like to go out there and find out what’s going on…’
‘Maybe; but it’s no place for you right now…’ said Elena anxiously. Her husband should have been home at the latest – the very latest – at three o’clock that afternoon, and now it was ten.
They went silently back into the dining-room. The guitar lay glumly silent. Nikolka went out to the kitchen and carried in the samovar, which hissed angrily and spat. The table was laid with cups that were pastel-colored inside and decorated outside with gilded caryatids. In their mother’s day this had been the family’s best tea-service for special occasions, but her children now used it for everyday. Despite the gunfire, the alarms and anxiety, the tablecloth was white and starched. This was thanks to Elena, who instinctively saw to such things, and to Anyuta who had grown up in the Turbin household. The hem of the tablecloth gleamed, andalthough it was December, in the tall, pillar-shaped matt glass vase stood a bunch of blue hortensias and two languorous roses to affirm the beauty and permanency of life – despite the fact that out there, on the roads leading into the City, lay the cunning enemy, poised to crush the beautiful snowbound City and grind the shattered remnants of peace and quiet into fragments beneath the heel of his boot. The flowers were a present from Elena’s faithful admirer, Lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky of the Guards, a friend of the salesgirl at La Marquise, the famous confectioners, and a friend of the salesgirl at the florist’s shop, Les Fleurs de Nice. In the shadow of the hortensias was a blue-patterned plate with a few slices of sausage, butter under a glass bell, lumps of sugar in the sugar-bowl and a long loaf of white bread. Everything one could want for a delicious supper if only the situation…
The teapot was covered by a bright woolen tea-cosy in the shape of a rooster, while the gleaming side of the samovar reflected the three distorted faces of the Turbins, making Nikolka’s cheeks look as round and puffed as the face of Momus scribbled on the stove.
Elena looked miserable and her red curls hung lankly down.
Talberg and his trainload of the Hetman’s money had gone astray somewhere, and the evening was ruined. Who knows what might have happened to him? The two brothers listlessly ate some slices of bread and sausage. A cold cup of tea and The Gentleman from San Francisco lay on the table in front of Elena. Misty and unseeing, her eyes stared at the words:
‘…darkness, sea, storm.’ Elena was not reading.
Finally Nikolka could restrain himself no longer:
‘Why is the gunfire so close, I’d like to know? I mean, they can’t have…’
He broke off, his reflection in the samovar distorting as he moved. Pause. The hands of the clock crawled past the figure ten and moved on – tonk-tank – to a quarter past ten.
‘They’re firing because the Germans are swine’, his elder brother barked unexpectedly.
Elena looked up at the clock and asked:
‘Surely, surely they won’t just leave us to our fate?’ Her voice was miserable.
As if at by unspoken command the two brothers turned their heads and began telling lies.
‘There’s no news’, said Nikolka and bit off a mouthful.
‘What I said was purely, h’m . . . conjectural. Rumors.’
‘No, it’s not rumors’, Elena countered firmly. ‘That wasn’t a rumor – it was true; I saw Shcheglova today and she said that two
German regiments had withdrawn from Borodyanka.’ ‘Rubbish.’
‘Now just think,’ Alexei began. ‘Is it conceivable that the
Germans should let that scoundrel Petlyura come anywhere near the city? Is it? Personally I can’t imagine how they could ever come to terms with him for one moment. Petlyura and the Germans – it’s utterly absurd. They themselves regard him as nothing but a bandit. It’s ridiculous.’
‘I don’t believe you. I know what these Germans are like by now. I’ve seen several of them wearing red arm-bands. The other day I saw a drunken German sergeant with a peasant woman – and she was drunk too.’
‘What of it? There may be isolated cases of demoralisation even in the German army.’
‘So you don’t think Petlyura will break through?’ ‘H’m … No, I don’t think it’s possible.’
‘Absolument pas. Pour me another cup of tea, please. Don’t worry.
Maintain, as the saying goes, complete calm.’
‘But where’s Sergei, for God’s sake? I’m certain that train has been attacked and . . .’
‘Pure imagination. Look – that line is completely out of any possible danger.’
‘But something might happen, mightn’t it?’
‘Oh, God! You know what railroad journeys are like nowadays. I expect they were held up for about three hours at every single station.’
‘That’s what a revolution does to the trains. Two hours’ delay for every hour on the move.’
With a deep sigh Elena looked at the clock, was silent for a while, then spoke again:
‘God, if only the Germans hadn’t acted so despicably everything would be all right. Two of their regiments would have been enough to squash that Petlyura of yours like a fly. No, I can see perfectly well that the Germans are playing some filthy double game. And where are our gallant Allies all this time? Ugh, the swine. Promises, promises . . .’
The samovar, silent until then, suddenly whistled and a few glowing coals, forced down by a heap of gray ash, fell on to the tray. Involuntarily the two brothers glanced towards the stove. There was the answer. Didn’t it say: ‘The Allies are swine’?
The minute hand stopped on the quarter-hour, the clock cleared its throat sedately and struck once. Instantly the clock’s chime was answered by the gentle, tinkling ring of the front-door bell.
‘Thank God; it’s Sergei’, said Alexei joyfully.
‘Yes, it must be’, Nikolka agreed and ran to open the door. Flushed, Elena stood up.
But it was not Talberg. Three doors slammed, then Nikolka’s astonished voice could be heard coming from the staircase. Another voice answered. The voices coming upstairs were gradually drowned by the noise of hobnailed boots and a rifle-butt. As the cold air flooded in through the front door Alexei and Elena were faced by a tall, broad-shouldered figure in a heel-length greatcoat and cloth shoulder-straps marked in grease pencil with a first lieutenant’s three stars. The hood of the coat was covered with hoar-frost and a heavy rifle fixed with a rusty bayonet filled the whole lobby.
‘Hello there’, piped the figure in a hoarse tenor, pulling at the hood with fingers stiff with cold.
Nikolka helped the figure to untie the drawstring and the hood fell away to reveal the band of an officer’s service cap with a faded badge; on the huge shoulders was the head of Lieutenant Viktor
Myshlaevsky. His head was extremely handsome, with the curiously disturbing good looks of centuries of truly ancient inbred lineage. His attractive features were two bright eyes, each of a different colour, an aquiline nose, proud lips, an unblemished forehead and ‘no distinguishing marks’. But one corner of his mouth drooped sadly and his chin was cleft slantwise as though a sculptor, having begun by modelling an aristocratic face, had conceived the wild idea of slicing off a layer of the clay and leaving an otherwise manly face with a small and crooked feminine chin.
‘Where have you come from?’ ‘Where’ve you been?’
‘Careful,’ replied Myshlaevsky weakly, ‘don’t knock it. There’s a bottle of vodka in there.’
Nikolka carefully hung up the heavy greatcoat, from whose pocket there protruded the neck of a bottle wrapped in a piece of torn newspaper. Next he hung up a Mauser automatic in a wooden holster, so heavy that it made the hatstand of stag’s antlers rock slightly. Only then did Myshlaevsky turn round to Elena. He kissed her hand and said:
‘I’ve come from the Red Tavern district. Can I spend the night here, please, Lena? I’ll never make it home tonight.’
‘My God, of course you can.’
Suddenly Myshlaevsky groaned, tried to blow on his fingers, but his lips would not obey him. His face grew moist as the frost on his eyebrows and smooth, clipped moustache began to melt. The elder Turbin unbuttoned Myshlaevsky’s service tunic, pulled out his dirty shirt and ran his finger down the seam.
‘Well, of course… Thought so. You’re crawling with lice.’
‘Then you must have a bath.’ Frightened, Elena had momentarily forgotten about Talberg. ‘Nikolka, there’s some firewood in the kitchen. Go and light the boiler. Oh, why did I have to give Anyuta the evening off? Alexei, take his tunic off, quickly.’
By the tiled stove in the dining-room Myshlaevsky let out a groan and collapsed into a chair. Elena bustled around, keys clinking. Kneeling down, Alexei and Nikolka pulled off Myshlaevsky’s smart, narrow boots strapped around the calf.
‘Easy now… oh, take it easy…’
They unwound his dirty, stained puttees. Under them was a pair of mauve silk socks. Nikolka at once put the tunic out on to the cold verandah, where the temperature would kill the lice. In his filthy cotton shirt, criss- crossed by a pair of black suspenders and blue breeches strapped under his instep Myshlaevsky now looked thin, dark, sick and miserable. He slapped his frozen palms together and rubbed them against the side of the stove.
‘News… rumors… People… Reds…’
‘… May… fell in love…’
‘What bastards they are!’ shouted Alexei Turbin. ‘Couldn’t they at least have given you some felt boots and a sheepskin jerkin?’
‘Felt boo-oots’, Myshlaevsky mimicked him, weeping. ‘Felt boo…’ Unbearable pain gripped his hands and feet in the warmth. Hearing
Elena’s footsteps go into the kitchen, Myshlaevsky screamed, in tears, screamed furiously:
‘It was a shambles!’
Croaking and writhing in pain he collapsed and pointing at his socks, groaned:
‘Take them off, take them off…’
There was a sickening smell of methylated spirits as frozen extremities thawed out; from a single small wineglass of vodka Lieutenant Myshlaevsky became intoxicated in a moment, his eyes clouding.
‘Oh Lord, don’t say they’ll have to be amputated . . .’he said bitterly, rocking back and forth in his chair.
‘Nonsense, of course not. You’ll be all right . . . Yes. The big toe’s frostbitten. There . . . The pain will go.’
Nikolka squatted down and began to pull on some clean black socks while Myshlaevsky’s stiff, wooden hands inched into the sleeves of a towelling bathrobe. Crimson patches began to appear on his cheeks and Lieutenant Myshlaevsky, grimacing in clean underwear and bathrobe, loosened up and came back to life. A stream of foul abuse rattled around the room like hail on a window-sill. Squinting with rage, he poured a stream of obscenities on the headquarters staff in their first-class railroad cars, on a certain Colonel Shchetkin, the cold, Petlyura, the Germans and the snowstorm and ended by heaping the most vulgar abuse on the Hetman of All the Ukraine himself.
Alexei and Nikolka watched the lieutenant’s teeth chatter as he thawed out, making occasional sympathetic noises.
‘The Hetman? Mother-fucker!’ Myshlaevsky snarled. ‘Where were the Horse Guards, eh? Back in the palace! And we were sent out in what we stood up in… Days on end in the snow and frost… Christ!
I thought we were all done for… Nothing but a row of officers strung out at intervals of two hundred yards – is that what you call a defensive line? It was only by the grace of God that we weren’t slaughtered like chickens!’
‘Just a minute’, Turbin interrupted, his head reeling under the flow of abuse. ‘Who was with you at the Tavern?’
‘Huh!’ Myshlaevsky gestured angrily. ‘You’ve no idea what it was like! How many of us d’you think there were at the Tavern? For-ty men. Then that scoundrel Colonel Shchetkin drove up and said (here Myshlaevsky twisted his expression in an attempt to imitate the features of the detested Colonel Shchetkin and he began talking in a thin, grating lisp): “Gentlemen, you are the City’s last hope. It is your duty to live up to the trust placed in you by the Mother of Russian Cities and if the enemy appears – attack, God is with us! I shall send a detachment to relieve you after six hours. But I beg you to conserve your ammunition…” (Myshlaevsky spoke in his ordinary voice again) – and then he and his aide vanished in their car. Dark – it was like being up the devil’s arsehole! And the frost – needles all over your face.’
‘But why were you there, for God’s sake? Surely Petlyura can’t be at Red Tavern?’
‘Christ knows. By morning we were nearly out of our minds. By midnight we were still there, waiting for the relief. Not a sign of them. No relief. For obvious reasons we couldn’t light fires, the nearest village was a mile and a half away, the Tavern half a mile. At night you start seeing things- the fields seem to be moving. You think it’s the enemy crawling up on you…Well, I thought, what shall we do if they really do come? Would I throw down my rifle, I wondered – would I shoot or not? It was a temptation. We stood there, howling like wolves. When you shouted someone along the line would answer. Finally I burrowed in the snow with my rifle-butt and dug myself a hole, sat down and tried not to fall asleep: once you fall asleep in that temperature you’re done for. Towards morning I couldn’t hold out any longer – I was beginning to doze off. D’you know what saved me? Machine-gun fire. I heard it start up at dawn, about a mile or two away. And, believe it or not, I found I just didn’t want to stand up. Then a field-gun started booming away. I got up, feeling as if each leg weighed a ton and I thought: “This is it, Petlyura’s turned up.” We closed in and shortened the line so that we were near enough to shout to each other, and we decided that if anything happened we would form up into a tight group, shoot our way out and withdraw back into town. If they overran us – too bad, they overran us. At least we’d be together. Then, imagine – the firing stopped. Later in the morning we took it in turns to go to the Tavern three at a time to warm up. When d’you think the relief finally turned up? At two o’clock this afternoon. Two hundred officer cadets from the ist Detachment. And believe it or not they were all properly dressed in fur hats and felt boots and they had a machine-gun squad. Colonel Nai-Turs was in command of them.’
‘Ah! He’s one of ours!’ cried Nikolka.
‘Wait a minute, isn’t he in the Belgrade Hussars?’ asked Alexei.
‘Yes, that’s right, he’s a hussar… well, you can imagine, they were appalled when they saw us: “We thought you were at least two companies with a machine-gun – how the hell did you stand it?” Apparently that machine-gun fire at dawn was an attack on Serebryanka by a horde of about a thousand men. It was lucky they didn’t know that our sector was defended by that thin line, otherwise that mob might have broken into the City. It was lucky, too that our people at Serebryanka had a telephone line to Post- Volynsk. They signalled that they were under attack, so some battery was able to give the enemy a dose of shrapnel. Well, you can imagine that soon cooled their enthusiasm, they broke off the attack and vanished into thin air.’
‘But who were they? Surely they weren’t Petlyura’s men? It’s impossible.’
‘God knows who they were. I think they were some local peasants – Dostoyevsky’s “holy Russia” in revolt. Ugh – motherfuckers…’
‘Well,’ Myshlaevsky croaked, sucking at a cigarette, ‘thank God we were relieved in the end. We counted up and there were thirty-eight of us left. We were lucky – only two of us had died of frostbite. Done for. And two more were carried away. They’ll have to have their legs amputated…’
‘What – two were frozen to death?’
‘What d’you expect? One cadet and one officer. But the best part was what happened at Popelukho, that’s the village near the Tavern. Lieutenant Krasin and I went there to try and find a sledge to carry away the men who’d been frostbitten. The village was completely dead – not a soul to be seen. We hunted around, then finally out crawled some old man in a sheepskin coat, walking with a crutch. He was overjoyed when he saw us, believe it or not. I felt at once that something was wrong. What’s up, I wondered? Then that miserable old bastard started shouting: “Hullo there, lads…” So I put on an act and spoke to him in Ukrainian. “Give us a sledge, dad”, I said. And he said: “Can’t. Them officers have pinched all the sledges and taken them off to Post.” I winked at Krasin and asked the old man: “God damn the officers. Where’ve all your lads disappeared to?” And what d’you think he said? “They’ve all run off to join Petlyura.” How d’you like that, eh? He was so blind, he couldn’t see that we had officers’ shoulder-straps under our hoods and he took us for a couple of Petlyura’s men. Well, I couldn’t keep it up any longer… the cold… I lost my temper… I grabbed hold of the old man so hard he almost jumped out of his skin and I shouted-in Russian this time: “Run off to Petlyura, have they? I’m going to shoot you-then you’ll learn how to run off to Petlyura! I’m going to make you run off to Kingdom Come, you old wretch!” Well, then of course this worthy old son of the soil (here Myshlaevsky let out a torrent of abuse like a shower of stones) saw what was up. He jumped up and screamed: “Oh, sir, oh sir, forgive an old man, I was joking, I can’t see so well any more, I’ll give you as many horses as you want, right away sir, only don’t shoot me!” So we got our horses and sledge.’
‘Well, it was evening by the time we got to Post-Volynsk. The chaos there was indescribable. I counted four batteries just standing around still limbered up – no ammunition, apparently. Innumerable staff officers everywhere, but of course not one of them had the slightest idea of what was going on. The worst of it was, we couldn’t find anywhere to unload our two dead men. In the end we found a first-aid wagon. If you can believe it they threw our corpses away by force, wouldn’t take them. Told us to drive into the City and dispose of them there! That made us really mad. Krasin wanted to shoot one of the staff officers, who said: “You’re behaving like Petlyura” and vanished. Finally at nightfall I found Shchetkin’s headquarters car – first class, of course, electric light… And what d’you think happened? Some filthy little man, a sort of orderly, wouldn’t let us in. Huh! “He’s asleep,” he said, “the colonel’s given orders he’s not to be disturbed.” Well, I pinned him to the wall with my rifle-butt and all our men behind me started yelling. This brought them tumbling out of the railroad car. Out crawled Shchetkin and started trying to sweeten us. “Oh, my God”, he said, “how terrible for you. Yes, of course, right away. Orderly – soup and brandy for these gentlemen. Three days’ special furlough for all of you. Sheer heroism. It’s terrible about your casualties, but they died in a noble cause. I was so worried about you…” And you could smell the brandy on his breath a mile away… Aaah!’ Suddenly Myshlaevsky yawned and began to nod drowsily. As though asleep he muttered:
‘They gave our detachment a car to themselves and a stove… But I wasn’t so lucky. He obviously wanted to get me out of the way after that scene. “I’m ordering you into town, lieutenant.
Report to General Kartuzov’s headquarters.” Huh! Rode into town on a locomotive… freezing… Tamara’s Castle… vodka…’
The cigarette dropped out of Myshlaevsky’s mouth, he leaned hack in the chair and immediately started snoring.
‘God, what a story…’ said Nikolka, in a bemused voice.
‘Where’s Elena?’ enquired the elder brother anxiously. ‘Take him to get washed. He’ll need a towel.’
Elena was weeping in the bathroom, where beside the zinc bath dry birch logs were crackling in the boiler. The wheezy little kitchen clock struck eleven. She was convinced Talberg was dead. The train carrying money had obviously been attacked, the escort killed, and blood and brains were scattered all over the snow. Elena sat in the half-darkness, the firelight gleaming through her rumpled halo of hair, tears pouring down her cheeks. He’s dead, dead…
Then came the gentle, tremulous sound of the door bell, filling the whole apartment. Elena raced through the kitchen, through the dark library and into the brighter light of the dining-room. The black clock struck the hour and ticked slowly on again.
But after their first outburst of joy the mood of Nikolka and his elder brother very quickly subsided. Their joy was in any case more for Elena’s sake. The wedge-shaped badges of rank of the Hetman’s War Ministry had a depressing effect on the Turbin brothers. Indeed dating from long before those badges, practically since the day Elena had married Talberg, it was as if some kind of crack had opened up in the bowl of the Turbins’ life and imperceptibly the good water had drained away through it. The vessel was dry. The chief reason for this, it seems, lay in the double-layered eyes of Staff Captain Sergei Ivanovich Talberg…
Be that as it may, the message in the uppermost layer of those eyes was now clearly detectable. It was one of simple human delight in warmth, light and safety. But deeper down was plain fear, which Talberg had brought with him on entering the house. As always, the deepest layer of all was, of course, hidden, although naturally nothing showed on Talberg’s face. Broad, tightly-buckled belt; his two white graduation badges – the university and military academy – shining bravely on his tunic. Beneath the black clock on the wall his sunburned face turned from side to side like an automaton. Although Talberg was extremely cold, he smiled benevolently round at them all. But there was fear even in his benevolence. Nikolka, his long nose twitching, was the first to sense this. In a slow drawl Talberg gave an amusing description of how he had been in command of a train carrying money to the provinces, how it had been attacked by God knows who somewhere about thirty miles outside the City. Elena screwed up her eyes in horror and clutched at Talberg’s badges, the brothers made suitable exclamations and Myshlaevsky snored on, dead to the world, showing three gold-capped teeth.
‘Who were they? Petlyura’s?’
‘Well if they were,’ said Talberg, smiling condescendingly yet nervously, ‘it’s unlikely that I would be… er… talking to you now. I don’t know who they were. They may just have been a stray bunch of Nationalists. They climbed all over the train, waving their rifles and shouting “Whose train is this?” So I answered “Nationalist”. Well, they hung around for a while longer, then I heard somebody order them off the train and they all vanished. I suppose they were looking for officers. They probably thought the escort wasn’t Ukrainian at all but manned by loyalist Russian officers.’ Talberg nodded meaningfully towards the chevron on Nikolka’s sleeve, glanced at his watch and added unexpectedly: ‘Elena, I must have a word with you in our room…’
Elena hastily followed him out into the bedroom in the Talbergs’ half of the apartment, where above the bed a falcon sat perched on the Tsar’s white sleeve, where a green-shaded lamp glowed softly on Elena’s writing desk and on the mahogany bedside table a pair of bronze shepherds supported the clock which played a gavotte every three hours.
With an incredible effort Nikolka succeeded in wakening Myshlaevsky, who staggered down the passage, twice crashing into doorways, and fell asleep again in the bath. Nikolka kept watch on him to make sure that he did not drown. Alexei Turbin, without conscious reason, paced up and down the dark living-room, pressed his face to the windowpane and listened: once again, from far away and muffled as though in cotton wool came the occasional distant harmless rumble of gunfire.
Elena, auburn-haired, had aged and grown uglier in a moment. Eyes reddened, her arms dangling at her sides she listened miserably to what Talberg had to say. As stiff as though he were on parade he towered over her and said implacably:
“There is no alternative, Elena.’ Reconciled to the inevitable, Elena said:
‘Oh, I understand. You’re right, of course. In five or six days, d’you think? Perhaps the situation may have changed for the better by then?’
Here Talberg found himself in difficulty. Even his patient, everlasting smile disappeared from his face. His face, too, had aged; every line in it showed that his mind was made up. Elena’s hope that they could leave together in five or six days was pathetically false and ill-founded…
Talberg said: ‘I must go at once. The train leaves at one o’clock tonight…’
Half an hour later everything in the room with the falcon had been turned upside down. A trunk stood on the floor, its padded inner lid wide open. Elena, looking drawn and serious, wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, was silently packing the trunk with shirts, underclothes and towels. Kneeling down, Talberg was fumbling with his keys at the bottom drawer of the chest- of-drawers. Soon the room had that desolate look that comes from the chaos of packing up to go away and, worse, from removing the shade from the lamp. Never, never take the shade off a lamp. A lampshade is something sacred. Scuttle away like a rat from danger and into the unknown. Read or doze beside your lampshade; let the storm howl outside and wait until they come for you.
Talberg was running away. He straightened up, trampling on the pieces of torn paper littered around the heavy, closed trunk. He was fully dressed in his long greatcoat, neat black fur cap with ear-muffs and gray-blue Hetmanite badge, his sword belted to his side.
On the long-distance departure track of the City’s No. 1 Passenger Station the train was already standing, though still without a locomotive, like a caterpillar without a head. It was made up of nine cars, all shining with blindingly white electric light, due to leave at 1 a.m. carrying General von Bussow and his headquarters staff to Germany. They were taking Talberg with them; he had influence in the right quarters… The Hetman’s ministry was a stupid, squalid little comic opera affair (Talberg liked to express himself in cutting, if unoriginal terms) – like the Hetman himself, for that matter. All the more squalid because…
‘Look, my dear (whisper) the Germans are leaving the Hetman in the lurch and it’s extremely likely that Petlyura will march in… and you know what that means…’
Elena knew what that meant. Elena knew very well. In March 1917 Talberg had been the first – the first, you realise – to report to the military academy wearing a broad red armband. That was in the very first days of the revolution, when all the officers in the City turned to stone at the news from Petersburg and crept away down dark passages to avoid hearing about it. As a member of the Revolutionary Military Committee it had been none other than Talberg who had arrested the famous General Petrov. Towards the end of that momentous year many strange and wonderful things happened in the City and certain people began appearing -people who had no boots but who wore broad, baggy Ukrainian trousers called sharovary which showed beneath their army greatcoats. These people announced that they would not leave the City for the front on any account because the fighting was none of their affair and they intended to stay in the City. This irritated Talberg, who declared curtly that this was not what was required, that it was a squalid comic opera. And to a certain extent he turned out to be right: the results were operatic, though so much blood was shed that they were hardly comic. The men in baggy trousers were twice driven out of the City by some irregular regiments of troops who emerged from the forests and the plains from the direction of Moscow. Talberg said that the men in sharovary were mere adventurers and that the real roots of legitimate power were in Moscow, even though these roots were Bolshevik roots.
But one day in March the Germans arrived in the City in their gray ranks, with red-brown tin bowls on their heads to protect them from shrapnel balls; and their hussars wore such fine busbies and rode on such magnificent horses that Talberg at once realised where the roots of power grew now. After a few heavy salvoes from the German artillery around the City the men from Moscow vanished somewhere beyond the blue line of the forests to cat carrion, and the men in sharovary slunk back in the wake of the Germans. This was a great surprise. Talberg smiled in embarrassment, but he was not afraid because as long as the Germans were there the sharovary behaved themselves, did not dare to kill anyone and even walked the streets with a certain wariness, like guests who were none too sure of themselves. Talberg said they had no roots, and for about two months he had no work to do. One day when he walked into Talberg’s room, Nikolka Turbin could not help smiling: Talberg was seated and writing out grammatical exercises on a large sheet of paper, whilst in front of him lay a thin text-book printed on cheap gray paper:
Ignatii Perpillo UKRANIAN GRAMMAR
At Easter in April 1918 the electric arc-lights hummed cheerfully in the circus auditorium and it was black with people right up to the domed roof. A tall, crisp, military figure, Talberg stood in
the arena counting the votes at a show of hands. This was the end of the sharovary, there was to be a Ukrainian state but a ‘hetmanite’ Ukraine – they were electing the ‘Hetman of All the Ukraine’.
‘We’re safely insulated from that bloody comic opera in Moscow’, said Talberg, his strange Hetmanite uniform clashing with the dear familiar old wallpaper in the Turbins’ apartment. The clock’s tonk-tank was choked with scorn and the water drained away from the bowl. Nikolka and Alexei found that they had nothing in common with Talberg. Talking to him would in any case have been extremely difficult because Talberg lost his temper whenever the conversation turned to politics and especially on those occasions when Nikolka was tactless enough to begin with the remark: ‘What was it that you were saying in March, Sergei…?’ Then Talberg would instantly bare his strong, widely-spaced teeth, yellow sparks would flash in his eyes and he would start to lose his temper. Conversation thus went out of fashion.
Comic opera… Elena knew what those words meant on her husband’s puffy, Baltic-German lips. But now the comic opera was becoming a real threat, and this time not to the sharovary, not to the Bolsheviks in Moscow, not just to other people, but to Sergei Talberg himself. Every man has his star and it was with good reason that court astrologers of the Middle Ages cast their horoscopes to predict the future. They were wise to do so. Sergei Talberg, for instance, had been born under a most unfortunate, most unsuitable star. Life would have been fine for Talberg if everything had proceeded along one definite straight line, but events in the City at that time did not move in a straight line; they followed fantastic zig-zags and Sergei Talberg tried in vain to guess what was coming next. He failed. Still far from the City, maybe a hundred miles away, a railroad car stood on the tracks, brilliantly lit. In that car, like a pea in a pod, a clean-shaven man sat talking, dictating to his clerks and his aides. Woe to Talberg if that man were to reach the City – and he might! Everybody had read a certain issue of the Gazette, everybody knew the name of Captain Talberg as a man who had voted for the Hetman. In that newspaper there was an article written by Sergei Talberg, and the article declared:
‘Petlyura is an adventurer, who threatens the country with destruction from his comic-opera regime…’
‘You must understand, Elena, that I can’t take the risk of having to go into hiding and facing the uncertainties of the immediate future here. Don’t you agree?’
Elena said nothing in reply, being a woman of pride.
‘I think,’ Talberg went on, ‘that I shall have no difficulty in getting through to the Don by way of Roumania and the Crimea.
Von Bussow has promised me his co-operation. They appreciate me. However, the German occupation has deteriorated into a comic opera. The Germans are leaving. (Whisper) By my calcula-tions Petlyura will collapse soon, too. The real power is in the South – Denikin. You realise, of course, that I can’t afford not to be there when the army of the forces of law and order is being forned. Not to be there would ruin my career – especially as Denikin used to be my divisional commander. I’m convinced that in three months’ time
– well, by May at the latest – we shall be back in the City. Don’t be afraid. No one is going to touch you and in a real emergency you still have your passport in your maiden name. I shall ask Alexei to make sure that no possible harm comes to you.’
Elena looked up with a jerk.
‘Just a moment,’ she said, ‘shouldn’t we tell Alexei and Nikolka at once that the Germans are betraying us?’
Talberg blushed deeply.
‘Of course, of course, I will certainly… On second thoughts, you had better tell them yourself. Although it makes very little real difference to the situation.’
For an instant Elena had a strange feeling, but she had no time to reflect on it. Talberg was kissing her and there was a moment when his two-layered eyes showed only a single emotion -tenderness. Elena could not prevent herself from bursting into tears, although she cried silently. She was, after all, her mother’s daughter and a strong woman. Then came Talberg’s leave-taking with
her brothers in the living-room. A pinkish light shone from the bronze lampstand, flooding the corner of the room. The piano bared its familiar white teeth and the score of Faust lay open at the passage where the flamboyant lines of notes weave across the stave in thick black clusters and the gaily- costumed, bearded Valentine sings:
‘I beg you, beg you for my sister’s sake, Have mercy on her – mercy!
Guard her well, I pray you.’
At that moment even Talberg, who had never been a prey to sentimental feelings, recalled the dense black chords and the tattered pages of the age-old family copy of Faust. Never again would Talberg hear the cavatina ‘Oh God Almighty’, never again hear Elena accompanying Shervinsky as he sang. But long after the Turbins and Talbergs have departed this life the keys will ring out again and Valentine will step up to the footlights, the aroma of perfume will waft from the boxes and at home beautiful women under the lamplight will play the music, because Faust, like the Shipwright of Saardam, is quite immortal.
Talberg stood beside the piano as he said his piece. The brothers listened in polite silence, trying not to raise their eyebrows – the younger from pride, the elder from lack of courage. Talberg’s voice shook.
‘You will look after Elena, won’t you?’ The upper layer of Talberg’s eyes looked at them anxiously, pleadingly. He stuttered, glanced awkwardly at his pocket watch and said nervously: ‘It’s time to go.’
Elena embraced her husband, hastily made a fumbling sign of the cross over him and kissed him. Talberg brushed his brothers-in-law on the cheek with his clipped, bristly moustache. With a nervous glance through his wallet he checked the thick bundle of documents in it, re-counted the thinner wad of Ukrainian money and German marks; then smiling tensely he turned and went. The light went on in the lobby, there came the sound of his trunk bumping downstairs. Leaning over the banisters, the last thing that Elena saw was the sharp peak of his hood.
At one o’clock in the morning an armored train like a gray toad pulled out from Track 5, through the dark graveyards of rows of idle, empty freight cars, snorting and picking up speed as it spat hot sparks from its ash-pit and hooted like a wild beast. Covering six miles in seven minutes it reached Post- Volynsk with a roar and a rattle and a flash of its lights, arousing a vague sense of hope and pride in the cadets and officers huddled in railroad cars or on guard duty. Without slowing down the armored train was switched off the main line and headed boldly away towards the German frontier. After it, ten minutes later, a passenger train with a colossal locomotive and dozens of brilliantly-lit windows passed through Post-Volynsk. Massive as obelisks and swathed to the eyes, German sentries flashed by on the platforms at the end of the cars, their black bayonets glinting. Hunched up from the cold and lit by rapid shafts of light from the windows, the switchmen watched as the long pullman cars rattled over the junction. Then everything vanished and the cadets were seized with envy, resentment and alarm.
‘Ah, the swine…’ a voice groaned from the switches as the blistering gust of a snowstorm lashed the railroad cars housing the cadets. That night Post was snowed up.
In the third car back from the locomotive, in a compartment upholstered in checkered calico, smiling politely and ingratiatingly, Talberg sat opposite a German lieutenant and spoke German.
‘Oh, ja’, drawled the fat lieutenant from time to time and chewed his cigar.
When the lieutenant had fallen asleep, when all the compartment doors were shut and all that could be heard in the warm, brilliantly lit car was the monotonous click of the wheels, Talberg went out into the corridor, opened one of the pale-colored blinds with their transparent letters ‘S. – W.R.R.’ and stared long into the darkness. Occasional sparks, snow flickered past, and in front the locomotive raced on and with a howl that was so sinister, so threatening that even Talberg was unpleasantly affected by it.
Source: “The White Guard”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny, with an epilogue by Viktor Nekrasov, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Great Britain, 1971, 70-140252 08844